Emily Dickinson, Self-Defined Womanhood, and Faith in the Female Genius

By Leela Miller

Notoriously morbid, reclusive, and eccentric, the enigmatic poet Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 to a wealthy and well-respected family in Amherst, Massachusetts.[1] Though she was fairly social and well-liked in adolescence, she grew increasingly private throughout her adult life, even earning the label of “The Myth” among her neighbors.[2] The constant subject of town gossip, Dickinson spent decades penning poems in private, ultimately amassing a collection of nearly 2,000 unpublished works.[3] She was an unorthodox rebel— someone who never thunderously pushed for political change or overcame great external obstacles, but who instead looked inward to find personal freedom. Dickinson was far from an outspoken activist, but her variant of womanhood was subversive in a different, more interior sense. She took unapologetic ownership of her own life, plumbed the depths of her most existential thoughts, and believed fiercely in the merit of her own writing, even when she lacked an audience. In the context of the patriarchal society in which she was raised, Dickinson’s unabashed confidence in her own genius was radical.

Dickinson’s unique radicalism must be considered within the context of the gender structures of her time. The cult of domesticity was deeply embedded within white, upper and middle-class society in 19th century New England. It outlined the parameters of socially acceptable womanhood: women were expected to uphold piousness, purity, and grace within the home but were barred from participating in the public sphere.[4] Their role was deemed important, yet always subordinate to the role of men. Women’s “virtue” lied in their ability to accept that subordinate status willingly, even eagerly.

Dickinson had a complicated relationship with this “ruling orthodoxy of her culture.” [5] To some degree, she embodied the virtues of so-called “true womanhood,” enthusiastically committing herself to the pursuits of letter writing, piano playing, baking, and horticulture.[6] She was sensitive, emotionally expressive, and often served as a caretaker in sickrooms.[7] However, she simultaneously defied the cult of domesticity in a major way: she refused to marry. She was motivated by her own intellectual desires, refusing on principle to surrender her independence to any man. Instead of struggling against “the structures of male power as they were embodied in home and school, church and state, workplace and marketplace,” which proved as obstacles to her writing, Dickinson retreated “to her room, to live in her mind rather than the external world”.[8],[9] By maintaining her single status, she preserved her ability to live a life “deliberately organized on her terms” from within the walls of her house.[10]

This intentional isolation made Dickinson a permanent outcast, but it also granted her the time and freedom to pursue personal creative fulfillment. During her most reclusive years, she wrote ferociously, often jotting verses on paper scraps, envelopes, and chocolate wrappers.[11] She never craved external validation, and she made very little effort to publish her work. Her syntactical style— now celebrated for its inventiveness— was deemed unpalatable for the common reader, but she refused to alter it in exchange for a chance at widespread recognition.[12] Dickinson knew that she was a great poet; she viewed that as a core principle of her being, not as a fact that needed to be confirmed by the general public. She displayed this unshakeable confidence in her 1862 work, “It was given to me by the Gods.” Written on lined stationery in elegant yet untidy script, the poem begins:

It was given to me by

            the Gods—

            When I was a little Girl

            They give us Presents most –

            you know –

            When we are new – and small.[13]

Dickinson describes “it”— her intrinsic drive and ability to write poetry— as having a spiritual quality, serving as “a kind of answer to or compensation for the lack of an easily recognizable divine presence in her own experience.”[14] She theorizes that she was gifted her literary passion and talent by multiple “Gods,” and this reference to polytheism, although subtle, crucially undermines the rigid and sexism-infused Calvinist dogma of her family and community. The poem continues:

            I kept it in my Hand –

            I never put it down –

            I did not dare to eat –

            or sleep –

            For fear it would be gone –[15]

Dickinson now expresses that her love of language is potent to the point of self-destruction and states that she values creative inspiration as both precious and fleeting, which is why she feels she must write constantly. In the final lines of the poem, she describes how that ceaseless poetic hunger is actually empowering:

            I heard such words as ‘Rich’ –

            When hurrying to school –

            From lips at Corners of the Streets –

            And wrestled with a smile.

            Rich! ‘Twas Myself – was

            rich –

            To take the name of Gold –

            And Gold to own – in solid

            Bars –

            The Difference – made me

            bold –[16]

“It was given to me by the Gods” highlights Dickinson’s devotion to living by her own set of values rather than by those imposed upon her. Material wealth, much like celebrity and social acceptance, held little meaning to her, while the satisfaction of writing a great poem was priceless. It was this attitude— this faith in her own ethics and her own worth— that gave her the strength to follow the untrodden path of being “simultaneously a woman and a poet.” [17]

In brief, Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal from her community was not a surrender to male-dominated society, but rather “a retreat from the rules and restrictions of her time.”[18] It was a chance for her to construct her own world— one that uplifted rather than limited her. She opted-out of external barometers of success, and she was therefore free from patriarchal circumscription. She was unwilling to shrink. She wrote what she wanted to write, and that was an act of rebellion.

[1] Schwarz, Claudia. “Emily Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time.” AAA: Arbeiten Aus Anglistik Und Amerikanistik 32, no. 1 (2007): 83-99. Accessed September 24, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43025786.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Baker, David. “At Home with Emily Dickinson.” The Kenyon Review, New Series, 36, no. 3 (2014): 154. Accessed September 24, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24242197.

[4] Hughes, Gertrude Reif. “Subverting the Cult of Domesticity: Emily Dickinson’s Critique of Women’s Work.” Legacy 3, no. 1 (1986): 17-28. Accessed September 24, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25678952.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: OUP USA, 1994.

[9] Monteiro, George. The New England Quarterly 57, no. 3 (1984): 449-52. Accessed September 24, 2020. doi:10.2307/365594.

[10] Rich, Adrienne. Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson.” Accessed September 24, 2020.

[11] “Of Course I Received Your Letter.” Emily Dickinson Museum. Accessed September 24, 2020. https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/of-course-i-received-your-letter/.

[12] Morse, Jonathan. “Emily Dickinson and the Spasmodic School: A Note on Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Esthetics.” The New England Quarterly 50, no. 3 (1977): 505-09. Accessed September 24, 2020. doi:10.2307/364281.

[13] Dickinson, Emily. “‘It was given to me by the Gods.’” Manuscript View for Houghton Library, J454, Fr455. Accessed September 24, 2020. https://www.edickinson.org/editions/1/image_sets/235724.

[14] Anderson, Vincent P. “Emily Dickinson and the Disappearance of God.” Christian Scholar’s Review 11, no. 1 (1981): 3-17.

[15] Dickinson, “It was given to me by the Gods.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Juhasz, Suzanne. The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of the Mind (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983).

[18] Schwarz, “Emily Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time.”

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